Written by Elisabetta Trenta.
A humanitarian catastrophe is taking place in Ethiopia following a war little of which is said in Italy. As Italians (and Europeans), we cannot stand by, nor limit ourselves to only send emergency convoys. The unity and stability of Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa and the entire Region are at stake. Written by Elisabetta Trenta, former Italian Minister of Defense.
On September 16th, 2018, after more than twenty years of war, the world celebrated when the meeting between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki marked the outbreak of peace between the two countries, both Italian colonies for a short period of time. Following this peace agreement and for announcing that he would launch liberal reforms in the fields of economics and politics and, therefore, giving concrete evidence of wanting to strengthen democracy, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. A prize awarded a little too early, but that expressed the enthusiasm for this new phase, which highlighted the moment of stabilization for the whole Horn of Africa and for the Italian relations in an area where we Italians still maintain close collaborations.
In the wake of these reforms, relations between Italy and Ethiopia began to develop faster than in the past, and I personally signed a cooperation agreement in the defense sector with the then Ethiopian defense minister, Aisha Mohammed Musa. The agreement included joint training initiatives, know-how exchange, peace support operations, countering terrorism and violent extremism, military research, development and collaboration in the defense industry.
Obviously, I would not have signed it if I had had only doubt about what happened afterward. At the time, however, we had no indicators regarding the future; on the contrary, we were looking at a country coming from fifty years of absolute monarchy, revolutions, civil war and authoritarianism. The new leader, immediately after taking office, freed political prisoners and journalists, opened to opposing parties and encouraged rebels to disarm; a very long war with Eritrea ended with the word peace and he promised to hold the first free and fair elections in the second most populous country in Africa.
However, in November 2020, President Abiy launched an offensive strike against the TPLF forces (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front) which he had accused of pursuing insurgent objectives and being traitors to the homeland. What had happened?
From an ethnic point of view, Ethiopia is a very fragmented country with its nine states divided on an ethnic-linguistic basis. The state of Oromia is the most populous one, with approximately 33 million people. Abiy Ahmed belongs to the Oromo ethnicity, which is one of the most marginalized in the country that had not expressed a prime minister since 1991; the Tigrinya ethnic group, on the contrary, although representing only 6% of the Ethiopian population, has always had the prime minister in office.
A further clarification to try to understand the reason of the conflict is that Abiy won the elections, declaring he wanted to favor national unity and create a strong national identity, with the support of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of which the TPLF was a key part. However, in order to further consolidate his position within the coalition, after the election Abiy established the Prosperity Party, easier to control, bringing together all the constituents except the TPLF.
The crisis with the TPLF worsened after Tigray held the regional elections in September 2020 deeming that the delay of the national elections due to the Covid pandemic, initially foreseen in August, was unconstitutional. Abiy did not concede to those elections. On 24 October, a change of commander should have taken place in the Northern Command; half of the Ethiopian Defense Forces depend from him. The commanding officers, many of them Tigrinians and with sympathies towards the TPLF, refused to welcome the new commander. As always, an excuse, an armed attack by the TPLF on an Ethiopian military base, prompted Abiy’s response, who therefore ordered airstrikes in order to dismantle the Tigray region’s government.
The military escalation immediately initiated a process that inevitably led towards a civil war (like the one from 1974-1991) which has strong possibilities of destabilizing the entire Horn of Africa and nearby countries such as Egypt and Sudan. Moreover, tensions with these two states have increased due to the construction of the GERD dam (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam), which Ethiopia wants to complete even without having reached an agreement with Sudan and Egypt regarding the exploitation of the water resources of the Nile River.
Nowadays the humanitarian situation is a disaster: the government accuses the TPLF of employing drugged child soldiers and, on the other hand, the Tigrinya people and Eritrean refugees raped, tortured, massacred and subject to mass executions. All of them employed, along with hunger, as weapons of a war with the features of genocide. An immediate solution must be found to face 6.8 million civilians in dire need of food, 70,000 refugees in Sudan, 2.2 million internally displaced persons, 80% of health facilities looted, tens of thousands of civilians massacred and dozens of thousands of raped women and girls (Data source: Twitter account Tigray Italy).
The U.S. Department of State has initiated a legal process to determine whether the news of the mass executions and rape are indeed a clear sign of ongoing genocide, that is, the will to “destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”. A declaration of genocide would mean that that war is no longer an internal event; it is something that affects humanity as a whole and could, therefore, also justify an external intervention.
In the meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on all criminals, from every faction, perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity since the start of the war in Tigray. In addition, there will also be a reform and an update regarding the legislation on the arms embargo towards Eritrea and the inclusion of the same rules regarding Ethiopia. This is a clear pressure from the United States towards the respect of human rights, to allow access for humanitarian convoys to Tigray and to try to bring together, at the peace table, all the parties involved, including Eritrean troops and Amara militias that are supporting the Ethiopian army.
Like the United States also the European Union asks for firmness, in an international framework in which Prime Minister Abiy has preferred the support from emerging powers rather from them; countries such as Turkey, Russia or Somalia that have little concerns towards human rights. In this context, Italy must not stand by and watch, nor limit itself to only attempting to send emergency convoys. The unity and stability of Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa and the entire Region are at stake.
Significant political initiatives are also needed such as, for example, suspending the collaboration agreement in the defense sector that I signed, and was later put into force while we were beginning to realize the way the country was heading. It is not enough to simply encourage dialogue, we need a real – composite – initiative for peace. The Ethiopian society present in Italy is asking for it and our humanity demands us to do so.